Sunday, December 30, 2007

Jealousy and Envy - Their effects upon the growth and development of the English language

Jealousy and envy - two very mean qualities that percolate through human history also populate the languages of the world with their lexical droppings. Let's take a look at English as a benefactor of said droppings.

We have to go back to the ancient Greeks to begin our story.

The Greeks were known for their love of abstract thinking, for their mythology, philosophy, mathematics, poetry and drama, as well as for their sculpture and pottery. But sculpture and pottery do not speak or leave linguistic residue; the others do - and they did.

The very words poem, poet, drama, anathema, problem, theorem, theory, myth, program, epigram, graph, telegraph, and many, many others all originated within the culture of the Greeks of the Classical period of the 5th century before the Common Era (BCE).

Then along came those nasty, bellicose Romans who swooped down upon the less militarily sophisticated Greeks, conquered them and enslaved them. However, the Romans, though superior in military prowess, envied the Greeks their culture. Into their own language the Romans began to absorb many Greek words reflecting academic and artistic sophistication.

Julius Caesar, Rome’s most famous military leader and eventual dictator, expanded the Roman Empire West all the way to Gaul (now called France), and into Iberia, the land that is now called Spain. The Roman legions also reached and conquered England, Germany and even North Africa. And into these countries they brought their Native Latin laced with many, many Greek words that they had "borrowed" from their defeated Greek enemies.

The inhabitants of Spain and France had to try to learn Latin in order to communicate with their new masters. They didn't do too good a job at it.

The inhabitants of Spain originally spoke a language we call Celtiberian. To speak with their new Roman overlords, they had to speak Latin, and they did so very poorly with a heavy accent derived from their own Celtiberian language. This poorly learned Latin is what eventually metamorphosed into modern Castilian Spanish. But Spanish also absorbed those Greek loan words right along with the ordinary Latin ones. So, modern Spanish now has a cornucopia of words that derived from the Greek. Words such as drama, problema, telegrama, poema, mapa, papa (meaning "Pope"), poeta, dentista, oculista, artista and many, many others became standard Spanish.

So what does all this have to do with English? Does it have anything to do with an interaction between the English and the French? Absolutely!

In fact, the very same thing that happened in Spain happened in France. Latin vocabulary, which included all those new Greek words, were imposed upon the inhabitants of France who also had to speak Latin, and spoke with the accent of the Gaulish people who had originally been there prior to the onslaught of the Romans. However, England had its own problems with France. The French, like the Romans, were quite skillful at warfare and in 1066 William the Conqueror, also called the Duke of Normandy, overcame all English resistance and defeated and then inhabited their land. The English, though defeated by the French, nonetheless were jealous, and envied them for their intellectual and cultural achievements and perceived superiority, especially in the areas of philosophy, perfumes and the culinary arts (note: culina is the Latin word for "kitchen.") Are you starting to get the connection?

Just as the Roman aristocracy had borrowed hundreds of words from Greek in order to make their speech sound more sophisticated than that of the "lower classes," the English aristocracy, who by that time were speaking a form of English that we now call "Middle English," began to do the same thing - borrowing hundreds of French words which soon became part of the English language (note: the very word language is a French loan word). That is one of the ways that so many Greek and Latin based words crept into the English language.

I hope that none of you think that English derived directly from Latin. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you may have read in a previous posting, the languages that grew from Latin are called the Romance Languages, and they include Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Rumanian. The languages that sprang from Germanic included Anglo-Saxon, which consisted of various dialects. One of them was spoken in an area of England called Mercia. It is the Mercian dialect of Anglo-Saxon that developed into Middle English which then developed further into the Modern English you and I speak today. Any Latin or Greek-based words that occur in English came in through borrowings from French, Spanish and, in some cases, Italian.

The previous account is just part of the story of how Latin came to occupy such an important place in the English language. But our story is not quite complete just yet.

Later on in the history of our language, scientists decided to borrow scientific vocabulary straight from Latin in order to name plants, animals, and the full anatomy of the human body.

Why Latin?
Good question!

The Catholic Church had been spreading Christianity around the world, and had been doing so in Latin. Here's why: The early Christians had first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek in order to win the Greeks away from their "pagan" tradition of myth-belief. Then, after the Romans had established their place as the new force to be contended with, the Bible was then retranslated - from the Greek into Latin in order to convert the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Since Roman culture outlasted Greek culture, Latin became the common language of the church. Anyone with education studied languages - especially Latin, and all philosophy and other learnèd subjects were written in it rather than in the author's native language. A French scholar, an English scholar, a Dutch scholar, a Danish or Russian or Swedish or Norwegian scholar would write in Latin. That way, no matter what the native language of the scholar, all scholars the world over would have access to the writer's research and theories. Nowadays, because so much research is done in English, and so many Graduate school textbooks and millions of scholarly papers are written in English, our own language has now overwhelmed Latin as the "Lingua Franca" of scholarship. Latin is studied for its cultural and historical value much more than as a requirement for entree into the world of letters and scholarship. But that is actually a topic for a later posting. Back to the main line of our story:

As medicine developed, the names of all the parts of anatomy were also written in Latin. As the natural sciences developed, all the flora and fauna of the world were also given Latin names. So this, then, was another mechanism by which Latin crept into the English language. You flex your biceps, triceps, pectorals; a person has a coronary attack; you injured your patella. You fractured your tibia and your fibula. You ask a friend to scratch your scapula when it itches you. If you are punched in the solar plexus you find yourself gasping for air.

All in all, mainly because of French, 60% of the 10,000 most frequently used words in the English language are derived ultimately from Latin. The old Anglo-Saxon words that were there originally have either been relegated to second place, or had their meaning altered in some fashion or were replaced entirely.

I hope that this posting has clarified one over-arching truism: There are no "pure" languages. Languages constantly absorb lexicon (vocabulary) from neighboring languages, either due to the "vices" of jealousy and envy, because of warfare, or on account of admiration of a perceived superior culture, or, like such words as "chocolate" which derives from Aztec chocolatl, the discovery of a particular plant or food native only to a particular country.

In another posting at some time in the future, we may look further into the many, many languages that contributed vocabulary to English and the kind of vocabulary items each language contributed.



Dan said...

I find that I disagree with one particular line: "There are no "pure" languages." Though there may be no absolutely pure languages, some are more pure than others, absorbing only a few loanwords here and there when absolutely necessary. Basque comes to mind (the only words that come from Spanish are those for which there is no Basque, like "coffee" and "bus" (kafe and autobus, respectively), as does Piraha, which I believe only uses words from Portuguese for trade. Though jealousy and envy may affect language, neither can affect a language spoken in isolation,

El Profe said...


Thanks for your observation. I'd like to share some thoughts with you on this issue:

All known languages, by definition, have to have had contact with speakers of other languages. Without contact with linguists, the existence of isolated languages wouldn't even be known. Once that contact has been established, the isolation in which the culture had lived is broken. The people now know that they are not alone, and may send out search parties to investigate the surrounding geographic and linguistic environment.

After such encounters, conflicts invariably arise over sharing land use. When war parties encounter one another in the wild and one conquers the other, the victors most often capture the things and the people whom the enemy considered valuable. If the enemy spoke another language, and the victors wanted to know the name of a particular item they had never seen before, they likely would ask surviving members or prisoners what they were called and would then use that word, pronounced as well as they were capable of pronouncing it, and add it to their own lexical stock.

Case in point: When Zulu speakers of Southern Africa encountered items of value that were owned by Hottentot Bushman, they learned the Hottentot Bushman word for the item, in the Hottenton Bushman language which includes its phonology. If the word contained a click phoneme - one which originally did not exist in Zulu but which did exist on Hottentot Bushman, and if many of the new words contained these clicks and Zulu speakers learned to make them in order to pronounce the name of the new and valued items, then not only did the lexicon grow, but Zulu phonology changed, too. That change, could eventually cause major phonological shifts within the Zulu linguistic system - and that could have implications on the morphological level, too. It doesn't take much to destabilize a language. As for Piraha, contact between that tiny culture and the surrounding Brazilian culture occurred so recently that not enough time has yet elapsed for the ripple effect of linguistic drift to have taken place. Give it time.

As for Basque, I'm sure that with the terrible history of animosity existing between the Federal government of Spain and the Basque people, that the forces of linguistic conservatism are at play in putting a brake on any linguistic innovation that contact between those two communities might otherwise have had on Euskara, the Basque language. If their situation ever normalizes, then possibly, given enough time, Basque will start to import some Castilian vocabulary items - just as so many languages have absorbed English vocabulary items because of the dominance of our culture - especially of our music. I have heard conversations in Greek, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Turkish, Hebrew - all peppered with English expressions such as "cool," "sexy," "man," "Yo!" "Hey", "yeah," "Wassup widdat?" etc. As long as there are no universally strong social prohibitions against such borrowings, they will happen, and they will eventually have a ripple effect on the non-dominant language.

J. K. Gayle said...

Wonderful post! Are you the one who added this to wikipedia:

The word stems from the French jalousie, formed from jaloux (jealous), and further from Low Latin zelosus (full of zeal), and from the Greek word for "ardour, zeal" (ζήλος) (with a root connoting "to boil, ferment"; or "yeast").

which mirrors the American Heritage Dictionary's etymology on envy as:

Middle English envie, from Old French, from Latin invidia, from invidus, envious, from invidēre, to look at with envy

And did you know some historians record Julius Caesar's dying words as being Greek?

J. K. Gayle said...

Wonderful post! Looks like you are the one who wrote the wikipedia entry on jealousy that includes this bit:

The word stems from the French jalousie, formed from jaloux (jealous), and further from Low Latin zelosus (full of zeal), and from the Greek word for "ardour, zeal" (ζήλος) (with a root connoting "to boil, ferment"; or "yeast")

and a similar entry on envy in the American Heritage Dictionary:

Middle English envie, from Old French, from Latin invidia, from invidus, envious, from invidēre, to look at with envy.

Speaking of envy and jealousy and Latin and Greek, weren't Julius Caesar's dying words Greek?

Thanks again for the post!

El Profe said...

Thanks, J.K.

No, I am not the scholar who left those interesting notes. That said, I do appreciate enormously your hyperlink to this fascinating hypothesis regarding the life and death of Caesar.